Are boys good for schoolgirls?

Is there a bias against female success, asks Jane de Swiet, head of a single-sex school
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The Independent Online
Again in the league tables produced after the A-level results, single-sex girls' schools such as mine seem conspicuously to succeed. Should we be proud of this or are we, as Professor Alan Smithers of Manchester University suggests in his co-education report published yesterday, simply a favoured bunch? We must remember his report was commissioned by the co-educational schools within the Headmasters' Conference, who experience strong competition from independent girls' schools.

Within the state sector the situation for girls is less rosy and Professor Smithers's assumptions are less apt. In many areas parents do not have the option of single-sex girls' schools unless they pay fees. Three decades ago there were 2,000 state girls' schools across the country. When we founded the Association of Maintained Girls' Schools in 1991, to help preserve and promote single-sex education for girls, we discovered there were no records of what girls' schools remained. There are only 240 now, of which 21 per cent are selective, including mine. The schools are clustered, some in authorities which retained grammar and secondary moderns such as Kent and others are in inner-city areas such as Liverpool and London. Urban, yes, but by no means all privileged. In Barnet, north London, my own borough, we have five girls' schools: two grammar, three comprehensive; all are over-subscribed, all have good results, all have a multi-cultural intake. A third of my pupils are bilingual and 29 languages are spoken by these girls at home.

Effective schools have strong leadership and a clear vision. Most of the AMGS schools, unlike mixed comprehensives, have women heads with a staff committed to enable the girls to play their full role in society, in and out of the workplace. Most of our pupils will eventually have partners and children and will be important wage earners for their families. The world of work is still challenging for women, even for my ablest pupils. Nationally, women's wages are below those of men, they hold few senior positions in industry or in the higher echelons of the professions. Women are poorly represented in Parliament, childcare is not seen as a national concern and single parents are attacked. There are no easy solutions we can offer to the conflicting demands of home and workplace, and what working mother has not suffered real distress, guilt and overwhelming weariness? In girls' schools we are aware of these wider issues and our responsibility to address them.

I agree with Professor Smithers when he says no one type of school is right for every pupil and that choice is important for each individual. In reality this is unavailable. His coining of a new, undefined phrase, "girlness", is bizarre and I do not recognise its appropriateness. I do not believe a female environment is intrinsically superior. I will have nine men on my staff of 45 in September and my consideration is always to appoint the best person for the post. At the moment we are delivering what the girls and parents want: an impressive academic diet within a caring and supportive environment. We are also attempting to meet the needs of a multi-cultural society to enable girls of all backgrounds to take their place side by side within our society and to retain respect for their own cultural and religious values. Again, there are particular issues for women. I find girls express themselves strongly and yet listen with great understanding in any discussion on marriage, partnerships and childrearing.

At Henrietta Barnett School, the girls and their parents are ambitious and many will be first-generation university applicants. I feel they are able to explore and develop their talents confidently and uninhibitedly within our school. As to subject and career choice, of our 90 A-level candidates 49 took maths and at least one science. Career choices still tend to be stereotypical with many choosing the caring professions. Our lack of background in some areas has been an advantage. Although, as with many AMGS schools, we have poor facilities, at least we approach technology without outdated models of woodwork and metalwork to overcome. We encourage each girl to choose her subjects freely and to find a path that is right for her.

Are we now seeing a backlash against the success of girls, and girls' schools in particular? Girls succeeded as soon as GCSEs were introduced, but was this the first time that questions, particularly in maths and science, addressed problems which had some relevance to the world of women? This year my own union, the Secondary Heads Association, has expressed concern about the under-achievement of boys in these exams. I think ruefully of those years when so few women went to university, about the low pay and continuing under-representation of women in decision-making positions and the slow pace of change. I do wonder if British society likes successful women.

While we deliver what pupils and their parents seem to need and want, let us fight to preserve our remaining girls' schools and acknowledge their academic achievement. Let us make the most of the opportunities and vision which the AMGS schools provide for women, even in the less privileged areas of the country.

The writer is headteacher of the Henrietta Barnett School, north London